The Exponential Legacy of Al Bartlett

Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado, died September 7, 2013 at the age of 90. It is coincidental that, in the year that he "officially" retired from teaching (1988), I first heard his famous lecture Arithmetic, Population, and Energy (although I don't recall if that was the title at the time). I was in my last year in graduate school, and his talk was one of the keynote presentations (or perhaps during dinner) for a scientific conference. It was seemingly out of place given that the subject of the meeting was surface chemistry and physics, but it most certainly became stuck somewhere in my mind for reasons other than its novelty.

Most scientists are transfixed on interesting scientific details, some with relevance to technological problems, and perhaps buzz-worthy enough to attract funding. There has never been much money in solving problems with no real technological solution. I became reacquainted with this talk in 2006, probably via a link on The Oil Drum. TOD was by its nature dealing with limits to growth (of oil, if nothing else), and over the last few years, we have discussed the various ways in which we could perhaps keep the oil flowing or replace it with something else. Perhaps the implications of exponential growth was kept in the back room somewhere, like an embarrassing relative, while the latest "game changing" solution was bandied about. But we need to continually remind ourselves that, while important, finding the next energy source or improving efficiencies the keep the economy growing are not long-term solutions for a finite planet.

Below are some more reflections on Prof. Bartlett's legacy, from ASPO-USA (where he had long been on the advisory board) and from the University of Colorado.

Albert A. Bartlett: Ode to a Gentle Giant

Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett enjoyed 90 years of rich life on this earth; moreover, thousands of people have enjoyed and been touched by Al's life.

He is of course most widely known as a tireless, eloquent, and supremely caring voice for charting a sustainable path for humanity. With seemingly endless determination, he applied his training in math and physics and skills as a master teacher to focus attention on a simple but paramount idea--on a finite planet, "growth" is unsustainable. "Sustainable growth is an oxymoron", is how Al is sometimes quoted.

His most reknowned quote, however, is "the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function"--referring to the accelerating rate exhibited by anything growing as a constant percentage increase.

Al developed a now-famous lecture that illustrated the power and importance of this mathematical phenonomenon, and reportedly delivered that lecture more than 1700 times over the following decades. That one man would be compelled to devote much of his career to the understanding of a basic, unassailable fact of life speaks volumes about the world we live in, as well as Al's great character.

ASPO-USA is proud to have had Al as a longstanding member of our advisory board, and I was exceptionally fortunate to be acquainted with him in his latter years. While the nature of our relationship was professional, what I will always remember is the warmth, humility, and quiet joy that he brought to his work and his relationships with his colleagues and students.

For those that dare to concern themselves with the monumental issues that concerned Al, there is a risk of gloominess creeping into our outlook on life and humanity. Al is a beautiful reminder that need not be the case.

The note that Al wrote to us after he visited his doctor was filled with the peace and happiness of a man who had understood long ago what was important in life and had lived his own life accordingly. We should all be so blessed, and some of us were also blessed to know Al.

In honor to Al, inspired and informed by his life and his friendship, we re-commit ourselves to continuing and building on his legacy.

Click below to view Al's famous lecture - Arithmetic, Population, and Energy:

Jan Mueller Executive Director, ASPO-USA


CU-Boulder campus mourns death of longtime, celebrated physics professor Al Bartlett

excerpted from here

“Al Bartlett was a man of many legacies,” said CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano. “His commitment to students was evidenced by the fact that he continued to teach for years after his retirement. His timeless, internationally revered lecture on the impacts of world population growth will live beyond his passing, a distinction few professors can claim. And we can all be thankful for his vision and foresight in making the Boulder community what it is today.”

Bartlett was born on March 21, 1923, in Shanghai, China. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Colgate University and spent two years as an experimental physicist at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico as part of the Manhattan Project before earning his graduate degrees in physics at Harvard. He then started his teaching career at CU-Boulder.

When Bartlett first delivered his internationally celebrated lecture on “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” to a group of CU students on Sept. 19, 1969, the world population was about 3.7 billion. He proceeded to give it another 1,741 times in 49 states and seven other countries to corporations, government agencies, professional groups and students from junior high school through college.

His talk warned of the consequences of “ordinary, steady growth” of population and the connection between population growth and energy consumption. Understanding the mathematical consequences of population growth and energy consumption can help clarify the best course for humanity to follow, he said.

The talk contained his most celebrated statement: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” A video of his lecture posted on YouTube has been viewed nearly 5 million times.

This year, the world population is about 7.1 billion and the CU Environmental Center announced a program this summer in which 50 student and community volunteers received training in exchange for a commitment to give Bartlett’s talk at least three times in 2013-14.

Before his death, Bartlett requested that any memorial gifts be made to the University of Colorado Foundation Albert A. Bartlett Scholarship Fund, in care of the Department of Physics, 390 UCB, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO, 80309.

Bartlett will live on in our hearts. He must have reached half a million people maybe a lot more, with his lecture, face to face, assuming attendance ran into the hundreds just about all the time.

That might be a record.

But my own personal favorite scientist and science educator is Edward O wilson, who has written a number of groundbreaking books and made several breakthrough discoveries.

I'm rereading his "Consilience" right now.

Imo, he has packed more wisdom into his books than any other modern writer I have ever heard of, not to mention the fact that he is a gifted writer, a real prose artist, to boot.

Personally, I wouldn't consider myself well read or well informed without having read his books. He knows his science, and his history; he understands politics, and he understands culture as well as anybody, bar none.

Consider this one tidbit: page 13, my vintage paperback edition of consilience

" I write, in 1997,only a third of universities and colleges require students to take at least one course in the natural sciences."
I believe this insane situation has gotten considerably worse, since then.

Now if there is one key fact that explains why we pay little or no attention to the warnings so often repeated by deadly earnest biologists, geologists, climatologists, epidemiologists, .. well this fact is the one.

Collectively, we don't have a clue.

Its damned close to miraculous that things aren't even worse than they are.

The high status girls at the nearby women's college looked down on me because I was an aggie undergrad. Dates would have been easier to get , had I been an English major, or a business major, or an engineer in training.

But aggies had to complete at the very absolute minimum the real core courses in both chemistry and biology- in the same class rooms, at the same hour, as the guys majoring in these fields.

These courses were pre req for virtually every thing taught in the college of agriculture, excepting a couple of applied business management electives.

An old saying from Wall Street and elsewhere "No tree grows to the sky"

I'm saddened at his passing.

Too be honest, physics was THE lame subject for me in high school, though I didn't mind the odd math challenge. However, if it's possible for an Average Joe to have a nerd as a hero, Professor Bartlett would be mine. Viewing that poorly shot lecture on compounding growth a few years back was a rare lightening bolt in my 47 years (along with meeting the right girl and having kids of course!!).


Sincerely, Matt Blain
Melbourne, Australia

The guy was a dude. All the best to those he leaves behind

I was taking an economics course in high school @1974 and had to write a paper on GDP and Debt, and how these would be affected by Nixon taking the US dollar off of the gold standard. Yuck! My mother used to drag me around to lectures, often with the local Audubon Society group she was the secretary of, and most lectures were by scientists and researchers about some part of the world they had studied, complete with slide shows or films; usually quite engrossing and memorable. While I was trying to get through the paper on debt, she took me to see Bartlett give his speech (at Emory University, IIRC). The exponential function as he applied it stuck, and the graph I included in my paper looked very much like this:

 photo US-debt-1791-2010v01_zps1a5e697b.jpg

This, of course, is an actual graph of GDP and debt in the US. I got a 'B' on the paper since the instructor said I hadn't sufficiently proven my premise and was overstating the effects of debt and inflation, especially upon GDP. I learned two things: I didn't want to be an economist; and I have applied Bartlett's way of thinking to everything since.

From the post, above, regarding the years of TOD: "Perhaps the implications of exponential growth was kept in the back room somewhere..."

In my four years active here, discussions have often been about exponential growth, that humanity seems mindlessly bent on growth, and that this is, of course, impossible. Growth in any sector is linked to growth in virtually every other sector, somehow, until it can't be. Observation tells me we, humans, are crossing a threshold where hard limits are becoming self-evident, even as we continue to try to mask this reality through the magic of faux-growth.

Bartlett's example of grains of wheat on the chessboard wouldn't have been a problem if the Emperor had simply begun to replace actual grains with chits representing the promise of real grain, not a problem until the proverbial mathematician wants or needs his grain, real grain, all of it. Maybe he's been promising wheat to a population on the verge of starvation.

This is how our economies have been operating for decades, placing bets and banking on real resources that won't be available in anywhere near the quantities we've been betting on, and many of these resources aren't easily replaceable like wheat. But through the magic process of overshoot, our populations and our environmental footprints have continued to grow exponentially. I, for one, don't expect that the fantasy of growth will end well.

At the end of his lecture, Bartlett quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:

"Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases, which we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of billions of people who are its victims."

Unfortunately, 47 years since MLK spoke, and almost 40 years since I got a B on that paper, the 'doublings' that Bartlett spoke of have continued to occur, and I haven't seen much indication that "sufficient knowledge of the solution, [and] universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of billions of people who are its victims" has or is occurring. The magic of increasing awareness (exponentially) and responding accordingly, collectively, seems to be lacking.

I hate to make a parting from TOD on such a gloomy note (it's a gloomy day here at home), but pledge to continue the fight for awareness, think globally, and act locally. I expect to see many of you on the far side of TOD, somewhere, somewhen. Thankyou, all!

"Unless one says goodbye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and an eventual extinction."-Jean Dubuffet

I had the pleasure of sending this graphic to Dr. Bartlett and he got a chuckle out of it.
Dear MODs it's my last graphic ever to be posted on TOD.


Just for chuckles, Fred, you want to drop that into the files section over at the TOD Evacuee Registry - 'Desert Island and Lounge'..

I think that files section could use a few salient submissions, if Ghung doesn't mind.

PS.. where have the rest of the rats been swimming off to? Guess I'll wander over to Energy Exchange for a peek.. tho' I've been on 7 day weeks recently.

It's interesting that both Norway and Australia have just thrown out their centre-left governments with both countries having steady GDP growth of 2.6%. Norway exports oil and Australia exports coal, LNG and other stuff that needs energy to process. The income doubling time works out nicely. To solve
(1.026)^n = 2 we get n = log 2/ log 1.026 = 27 years.

Such is the Oil Age sense of entitlement that is apparently not good enough. Steady state GDP growth of 0% will send people into a meltdown and at -2% they will jump out of windows. My hunch is that depletion and carbon concerns will make it happen within a decade.

The Australian Labour Party (ALP) was shown the door mostly for it's unlikeable, interchangeable leaders, but also for the 40-plus tax hikes bestowed upon folk like myself (average middle class) over the past six years and a few silly reactionary "ideas" that proved quite expensive. State Labour Parties not much better. Yes, we could of been worse off, but those cost of living rises could certainly have been tempered somewhat.

I believe Australians are the most over-taxed and over-governed citizens on the planet. Just as well we have a good sense of humour (for the most part).


Norway always throw out their gouvernment. The last election was the exception where the ruling party did keep thir jobs. This year, order was restored.

My father's favorite paper was his Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis. I still have a yellowed and much photocopied copy.

The hot link given by Jon leads (with one more click) to a particularly interesting version of the talk which was published in April 1998 on the 20th anniversary of the talk's original presentation. There is a preface containing Al's recollections of how the talk had grown and changed up to that time. Until today, I had remembered the talk, in an early printed version as being about resource limits only, with no mention of population. It turns out that explicit mention of population growth was a later addition, but still within the first 20 years. It's worth downloading the PDF and reading it and especially the preface even if you think you already understand the exponential function.

Farewell good Doctor.

Such is life, even the best eventually have to say goodbye.

Sadly the human race still doesn't get exponential growth.

CO2 emissions are still soaring every year, the debt is piling up faster and faster and we're at 7.1 Billion people and climbing.

It's a race to nowhere.

I have purchased quite a few copies of the lecture by Dr. Bartlett from the University of Colorado-Bolder book store and have sent them to many local politicians and business leaders with 3x the cost of return mail in cash and have only gotten a very few back. The few persons who were willing to discuss the lecture all came up with the same theme that the Colorado politicians came up with - the exponential function doesn't work at local levels.

The fact that the lectures of Dr. Bartlett were used in some of the classes at our local branch of the University of Minnesota had NO impact on the local politicians and business leaders as to its value. Depressing - -

Sadly, most of these local "leaders" will be gone from this earth before the realization of the citizens of the catastrophe of the policies of the local politicians will become fully self evident. I suspect that the people of 50 and 100 years from now will not have any nice things to say about our current "leaders" at the local, State and National levels. It is too bad that somehow the future's citizens don't have some vote on the current "leaders" who are all making these Grand Predictions for the future based upon their "leadership".

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to see the video of Dr. Bartlett's lecture and learn the lessons therein. A very public "Thank You" to Dr. Bartlett from me!

World Primary Energy Production and Carbon Dioxide Emission

What we could do and what we should do, is not what we are doing.

RIP. Now today the NYT has an op-Ed saying that overpopulation is not an issue. Hm...

I first met Dr. Bartlett at the mixer the evening before the 2005 ASPO conference. I happened to sit down at a table where he was engaged in a conversation. I did not know who he was. He turned to me and asked if I knew the number one problem facing the world. Without hesitation I responded, "population". I quickly became a huge fan of his, bought a box of his DVD's that I sold at a screening in my community, burned hundreds of CDs of his lecture that I carried with me to every meeting and passed to every elected official that would take one. I will never forget the comment I got from one man. He reported that he had popped it into his CD player on his way home and after a few minutes he had to pull over and park under a tree because he was so engaged. Dr. Bartlett did more than most to advance an important issue in a delusional world. I am honored to have known him.

Al Bartlett had the rare gift to be able to explain scientific facts in a language that everybody could understand. He popularized the (natural) concept of exponential growth like no one before him, and he did so without compromise, without making science "cheap" in the process.

A great communicator of science has left us. We should all be grateful for what he has given us. I am.